Review by: 

Kim MacQueen
Champlain College
[email protected]

All through higher education’s history, young adults have left their parents’ homes to start their college careers and had to deal, often for the first time ever, with rent. And the rent keeps rising. In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Harvard scholar Matthew Desmond chronicles the often devastating effects that mounting rents can have on American families.  

Even as the nation’s recent housing drove the cost of buying a house down, it drove rents up even further. The New York Times recently reported a 2015 study by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies that found that the number of families spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent has skyrocketed. Desmond reports that utilities are up drastically as well — 50 percent since 2000, with poor families in run-down rental units paying nearly the same cost per month for heat and electricity as families bringing home more than $75,000 per year (p. 15).

“The majority of poor renting families in America spend over half their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on,” he writes, citing data from the American Housing Survey, 1999-2013.

Evicted focuses on the daily efforts of families living in inner-city Milwaukee to find safe housing. But though it’s thoroughly detailed and researched, Evicted is not a drab book about data. It’s told through stories about these families. It’s about what happens when they fall behind on their bills due to illness, injury, addiction or happenstance. It’s about what happens when they’re evicted and face life on the street or a shelter. Too often they’re forced to accept unsafe, substandard housing somewhere else, intending to be there for just a short time that inadvertently stretches out for years — if they can keep up with the rent.

Evicted is about landlords, too, and Desmond depicts them with just as much grace and care as the individuals they work to evict, even as he describes the vicious cycle both are caught in: “For many landlords, it was cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties; it was possible to skimp on maintenance if tenants were perpetually behind; and many poor tenants would be perpetually behind because the rent was too high” (p. 75).

The housing bust didn’t cause all of problems faced by Desmond’s subjects. As he shows, though, it left huge holes in families not just in America’s inner cities, but everywhere. The crisis cost the average white family approximately 11 percent of its net worth. Black families lost closer to 30 percent and Hispanic families 44 percent (p. 125). The housing crisis has and will continue to touch all of us in large and small ways whether we realize it or not.

It can be hard to track students down and convince them to keep their advising appointments. Often studies and social lives fill up their calendars first, taking precedence over planning for future semesters. But sometimes the problem goes deeper, involving money issues that advisors might not be especially equipped to deal with. Sometimes the financial background noise of students’ lives gets so loud that it drowns out everything else. Evicted helps us to understand the issues an ever-growing number of Americans face every day simply in finding a home.


Searcy, D. (2015, June 25). More Americans Are Renting, and Paying More, as Homeownership Falls. The New York Times. Retrieved from http:www.nytimes.com

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. (2016). Matthew Desmond. New York: Crown Publishers, 432 pages. ISBN: 978-0-553-44743-9

Posted in: 2016 Book Reviews
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